Believe it or not, I never actually attended a high school football game while I was in high school. My tiny Catholic high school in rural southern Illinois didn’t have the students or the insurance to support a football team. I didn’t care enough at the time to go to the games at the public school across town. So it wasn’t until my own son started high school three years ago that I got to experience the phenomenon that is the high school football game or, as it’s fondly referred to thanks to a popular TV show, Friday Night Lights.
Faith + Friday Night Lights
In these last three years, though, I have developed a love for high school football that I honestly never dreamed possible. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter to me. From the tailgaters to the parents working the concession stands. From the crazy kids in the student section to those taking the field to play, cheer, dance, and march. There is tradition there.
It can be easy to miss in the noise and the hoopla, of course. The brightness of those Friday night lights can wash out the holiness and highlight the hullabaloo. But lean in and look more closely, sisters. Let’s see if you can find it, too.
Every Friday afternoon around the country, pre-game meals are served to the team, the marching band, the color guard, and the cheerleaders. Sometimes, it looks like friends ordering pizzas that they’ll scarf down before they change. Sometimes, volunteers from local churches come together to cook big meals for the kids. Other times, parents, grandparents, and volunteers sacrifice their time to take off work early to serve them hot dogs and hamburgers.
Regardless of the bread that is broken, the idea remains the same. Community is formed around a shared table. Even when that “table” looks more like the rear of an SUV with the back hatch lifted up or a truck’s tailgate lowered.
After the meal, it’s time to suit up. Pads and helmets for some, bibs, jackets, and hats for others, poms and sneakers for others. The kids put on the armor suited to their own particular callings, and prepare to share their gifts with hundreds or thousands of people.
The Pep Talk
Before they go, though, there’s always some sort of pep talk. Maybe it’s a coach who pumps them up for the game ahead. Possibly a director who reminds them of the part of the drill they need to improve. It could even be a chaplain who takes a moment to calm the storm, quiet the noise, and lead them in prayer. Then, it’s game time.
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There’s nothing haphazard about the start of a football game, is there? There’s a method to the madness that serves both to keep order and excite the crowd.
At my sons’ school, the first sign of the start of the game is when you hear the drumline moving towards the field. The 200+ member marching band starts marching a quarter mile away at the school. At first, all you hear is a dull rhythmic thump. As they get closer, you the beat becomes more distinct and you can hear the chant they yell. The cheerleaders and dance team run to line the track where the band enters the stadium. And when the band enters the stadium, they act as heralds and the very air gets charged with a new level of anticipation.
Soon after, the teams who have been warming up clear the field. When the team names are called, they charge through whatever sign or banner the cheerleaders have made that week as the crown cheers, and take to the sidelines. The band plays the National Anthem. Announcements are made and, in some communities, pastors lead everyone in prayer.
Confession time: Even though I go to every home game, I’m not actually a football parent. Nope. I’m a band parent. I go to the games and watch my kid blow a horn, not take hits. The footwork that moves him around the field carries almost zero risk of broken bones, concussions, or worse. Week after week, my heart goes out to the moms of those boys in the pads and helmets.
For four quarters, we watch and cheer. We argue with the refs from our seats in the stands. We encourage the players as our weekly case of bleacher butt sets in.
Families and neighbors, classmates and friends spend time together out in the elements. Depending on the week, we complain about the heat, cold, rain, or even snow!
If we’re lucky, the game is uneventful and the paramedics just get to hang out at the end of the field and watch a good game from the tailgate of the ambulance. But if the time comes and they are needed, it’s a powerful thing indeed to feel the silent prayers being lifted from the stands as players on both sides take to their knees.
At the end of the night, there’s got to be a winner and a loser. Prayers of thanksgiving are lifted from some teams and prayers of consolation from the other.
Like an athletic examination, coaches review how the game was played, what was done wrong, what needs to be fixed, and who needs to fix it.
In the locker rooms and band rooms around the country, blessings are given as the kids are dismissed to live their lives, work, practice, and study until they come back next week and the whole process begins again.
Faith and Fun
Maybe this juxtaposition of faith and fun seemed a little absurd to you. I get that. The way I see it, though, these Friday nights are an excellent time for our young people to really put their faith into action! When they share the hard work of winning and losing and with others, they internalize that faith into a part of their lives that otherwise might feel quite far removed from “church.”
You know, I’ll just let Pope St. John Paul II run this point in for the touchdown…
The potential of sports makes it a significant vehicle for the overall development of the person and a very useful element in building a more human society. A sense of brotherhood, generosity, honesty and respect for one’s body – virtues that are undoubtedly essential for every good athlete – help to build a civil society where antagonism is replaced by healthy competition, where meeting is preferred to conflict, and honest challenge to spiteful opposition. When understood in this way, sport is not an end, but a means; it can become a vehicle of civility and genuine recreation, encouraging people to put the best of themselves on the field and to avoid what might be dangerous or seriously harmful to themselves or to others.
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